Third sector careers: 5 tips for first-time applicants to the charity sector

Home Third sector careers: 5 tips for first-time applicants to the charity sector
22 Oct 2021
For job-seekers

There are over 180,000 charities in the UK today, employing around 778,000 paid workers and benefitting from the commitment of many thousands of volunteers. While some are major organisations with big budgets, more than 80% are relatively small operations with an annual income of less than £100,000. Whether you're hoping to land a graduate role in an international organisation or find work in a local charity, competition for paid employment in the sector is fierce. But don’t be fooled by the altruism and passion in the sector – these organisations are run like businesses with astute commercial awareness, robust strategic planning, the expectation of long hours and personal commitment, and typically fewer perks and rewards than you might be used to in the private sector. However, if you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and genuinely feel motivated to make the move to the third sector, here are our top tips on making your application stand out.


1. Volunteering is key


Handily for those who’ve already signed up to volunteer, organising and taking part in voluntary events is essential for getting your first charity job. Charities don’t just hire anyone, they hire people who live and breathe helping others. Volunteering should be considered an extended part of your CV. It shows that you’re an active and engaged member of the community, you’re willing to set aside time to help others and are committed to a cause. Henrietta Blyth, people director for Tearfund, says volunteering can even outweigh postgraduate qualifications: “Having relevant experience and skills is more valuable than lots of qualifications. Pick a few charities you fancy working for and write to the relevant member of staff to ask them if you can shadow them for a few days. If they say yes, you have an ideal way of building relationships in the sector.”


2. Be flexible


It’s important to be flexible when looking for your first job in this sector (or, arguably, in any sector). You’re unlikely to land your perfect role immediately, and demonstrating flexible skills will help you stand out from the crowd. Being willing to explore how your existing skill set might suit the charity (even if it’s not in the role or department you want to be in) and being up for getting your hands dirty and working your way up from the bottom might make all the difference to your application. There is a lot to be said for candidates who are multi-skilled or have a number of specialities. You can sell yourself as dynamic, adaptable and an asset to any number of departments. If you’re a first-time applicant, part of the job (and training) will probably include some time in the field so being flexible to different hours and changes of scenery is also important. In this industry, it’s all about who you are as a person. You need patience, passion, kindness, empathy, motivation, organisational skills and the ability to deal with your emotions in addition to the right skills for the job. Skills can largely be taught, but those personal qualities really can’t. Having an interest and understanding of the real issues facing the charity sector, an overview of the current climate and knowledge of work the charity is doing may be a deal breaker over someone who has every skill but none of the other elements.


3. Look beyond traditional charities


When moving into a new industry, especially the not-for-profit world – do your research. Not everyone realises that the sector consists of more than just charities; there are social enterprises, community interest companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and voluntary groups. And within each of these, you have both large and small organisations. They all operate in different ways and choosing between them can significantly affect your career path. Ask yourself why you want to work for a charity, and if there is any other way you could succeed in that goal. For example, there may be a particular good cause that you want to support, or you may want to help others in a more general way. Working for a charity is not the only way to make a difference; you could support a pressure group or political party, start your career in the public sector or in social work, or find a job at a company with a strong ethical ethos that is committed to supporting charities or volunteering. If you’re driven to work for an organisation with a social mission, think wider than traditional charities – there could be an even better option for you.


4. Use your networks – that includes us!


Think about the people you know and the people they know, including family and friends. Do you know anybody who works or volunteers for a charity, or who could put you in touch with somebody who does? This could be a useful way to gain insights about getting work or work experience, if not about actual vacancies. Think of this as an information-gathering activity. Don’t forget, charities of all sizes work with recruitment agencies to help fill their vacancies so registering with a specialist or local agency and asking them for advice is a great way to get insider knowledge and access to opportunities. We work with several charities in the local area, large and small, and would be happy to talk to you about working in the sector.


5. Take it seriously


There is a common misconception that charities are less ‘professional’ than organisations in the private sector and that the application process will be less formal and structured. That’s definitely not the case. If you’re applying for a job with a charity, it’s highly likely to be a very competitive and demanding process. Just as you would for a private sector role, you need to make sure your job application is clear, tailored and concise. How you write your cover letter can make all the difference when applying for jobs in the third sector. You need to make sure you absolutely address the main areas that a charity is looking for, and that you do so in a succinct and well-considered way. Charities don’t just hire anyone, they hire people who live and breathe helping others. Volunteering should be considered an extended part of your CV. Don’t just say you’re a ‘passionate environmentalist’ or an ‘avid animal lover’, show it through examples of your volunteering efforts, whether that’s spending your free time campaigning for a cause or devoting your Saturdays to helping at the animal shelter. It’s crucial to show in your application that making the world a better place is part of your DNA.


How can we help?


If you’re looking for your next office role in Surrey or the surrounding areas, Amber is here to help. You can give us a call on 01932 355000 or email to plan your next career move.

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